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Friday 5: Restrictor-plate kings and Daytona tactics

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s pied-piper on restrictor-plate tracks, creates the question of who are the best plate drivers in Cup.

Many say Brad Keselowski, noting his five Talladega victories and one Daytona victory in his career, but it is not unanimous.

In the last three years Keselowski is tied with Penske teammate Joey Logano for most points wins at a restrictor-plate track with three each. The only other drivers with more than one plate win in the last three years are Earnhardt (2) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2). The only other drivers to win a restrictor-plate race in the last three years is Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch with one each.

Keselowski’s success has come from the strong Fords Team Penske has had, a veteran spotter in Joey Meier and the ability to control the pack while leading, darting back and forth between lanes to block.

 “It would be kind of weird to put my own name out there, but I think Joey is really good and Denny Hamlin is really good,’’ Keselowski said. “I think my teammate, Ryan Blaney, is becoming really good. If I had to pick one more, probably Kevin Harvick.”

Harvick, though, sides with those who have done well lately.

“I think the guys that have the most success right now have been Brad and Joey, and I think the Fords have the fastest cars in the race usually when you look at the past restrictor-plate races,’’ Kevin Harvick said.

Kyle Busch views the top of the class this way:

“The last couple years, I look at Brad and Denny as being the top two guys,’’ Busch said. “I think the speed of Stenhouse’s car was pretty important last year. He did a good job with it, won some races. But I got to look at Brad and Denny, the things they do, as the guys you kind of watch, see if you can mimic, emulate some of the stuff they have going on in order to get yourself through the pack and up towards the front.”

What is it that Keselowski and Hamlin do so well?

“It’s like they’re outside the car and they can see the things that are happening behind them better than I can,’’ Busch said. “Like, I can only see what’s happening behind me, the guy that’s directly behind me. I can’t necessarily tell the run that he’s getting and where the energy is coming from behind him. It’s like those guys are standing outside their car, they’re feeling or seeing what all is happening, where to get that energy from, all that sort of stuff.’’

Hamlin sees a similarity with Keselowski in how they race on plate tracks.

“I think me and Brad have similar driving styles on the superspeedways in how they do things,’’ Hamlin said. “I think there’s other things that make bold moves, and it looks good for a highlight reel, but it’s not always great for winning a race. And so I think there is a difference, and it just ‑‑ for whatever reason, our styles have morphed into kind of the same driver on these types of racetracks, and it’s really just ‑‑ for whatever reason, it’s made us successful.’’

2. AT WHAT PRICE WAS Alex Bowman’S POLE?

Kevin Harvick questioned the tactic by Alex Bowman in Thursday night’s first qualifying race.

Bowman, who won the pole for the Daytona 500, immediately went to the outside and fell to the back of the pack after the green flag waved. He spent most of race in the back and finished 14th.

“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today in my opinion,’’ Harvick said. “They’ll go out and practice. Starting on the pole is great but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time in my opinion.’’

Crew chief Greg Ives defended the action.

“I saw those guys wreck and that’s something we weren’t going to have to do,’’ he told reporters after the race. “I’m already locked into the pole position, so there’s no sense being out there and having people get around you and get in a situation to get wrecked. You always want to get experience in the draft but … I didn’t think it was a benefit. We came down here with a plan and we’re going to stick with the plan. Right now it’s working out.’’

Bowman said this week that his car was “trimmed out’’ in qualifying, meaning that downforce had been taken out so the car would be faster. That’s great for single-car qualifying but teams were not allowed to change their cars before the qualifying races, so that meant that Bowman’s car likely would be unstable in traffic. To avoid the potential problems, Bowman went straight to the back.

In a race that saw a fourth of the 20 cars eliminated by accidents, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, Bowman survived and has his No. 1 starting spot intact. There’s still the chance to draft in practice if the team elects — remember how Chad Knaus and Johnson used to famously avoid the draft in practice previously — and fine-tune the car once they can make adjustments for it to handle better in traffic.

If nothing else, Bowman’s pole provide additional exposure for his sponsors, marked the fourth straight year Hendrick Motorsports won the Daytona 500 pole and gave the organization something to rally around after a disappointing season that featured only four wins — the fewest for Hendrick since 2000.

3. RICKY STENHOUSE JR. GAINED NOTICE IN HIS RACE

It was as if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. raced with a billboard-sized, neon-colored “Look at Me!” sign during his qualifying race Thursday night.

But he wasn’t trying to gain the attention of fans but fellow competitors.

In the first qualifying race, Stenhouse repeatedly dived to the bottom lane and tried to make moves.

“I was just kind of tired of riding around on the outside,’’ Stenhouse said.

But his actions also did more, showing the field, particularly those that weren’t in his race, how well his car handled and the speed it had. It was a chance to remind drivers that his car would be a good one to work with in the Daytona 500.

Ford has won the past seven restrictor-plate races and has won two of the three events in Speedweeks with Brad Keselowski winning the Clash and Ryan Blaney winning his qualifying race Thursday.

4. STILL GOING

Richard Petty is 80 years old and still continues to be a part of the sport when he easily could enjoy a more casual life of retirement.

So why does he keep going?

“I’ve been going to the races since I was 11 years old,’’ Petty said. “It’s in your blood. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do the racing part.’’

5. THE FINAL WORD

Clint Bowyer offered this at Media Day earlier this week when told by a reporter that he looked leaner and asked how he had gotten that way.

“I just quit eating,’’ Bowyer said. “That is what you have to do when you get fat. Quit eating and quit drinking. Be miserable, and hire a trainer that is mean as hell.”

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NASCAR fines seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations at Las Vegas

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NASCAR announced Tuesday it has fined seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations from the Cup and Xfinity races this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,

In the Cup Series, NASCAR issued fines to crew chiefs Matt McCall (Kurt Busch), Greg Erwin (Matt DiBenedetto) and Seth Barbour (John Hunter Nemechek) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $10,000.

In the Xfinity Series, NASCAR fined crew chiefs Bruce Schlicker (Ross Chastain), Dave Rogers (Riley Herbst), Ben Beshore (Harrison Burton) and Brian Wilson (Austin Cindric) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $5,000.

 

Chad Knaus to move off pit box for executive role at Hendrick

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Chad Knaus, whose success as a crew chief is nearly unparalleled in NASCAR, will step down from that role after this season and move into a leadership position at Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Tuesday.

Knaus will become vice president of competition. He will oversee technical development for Hendrick Motorsports, including implantation of the Next Gen car in 2022. He also will be responsible for personnel for each of the four teams, including crew chiefs, pit crews, engineering, fabrication, assembly and other team-related staff.

Knaus won seven championships as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman won more titles. Inman won eight, scoring seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte. Knaus has 82 career Cup wins. All but one came with Johnson. William Byron scored his first career Cup win in August at Daytona with Knaus as his crew chief. Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. The 49-year-old Knaus is the only crew chief to have competed in NASCAR’s postseason all 17 years.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. They combined to win that event four times.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“When I started at Hendrick Motorsports (in 1993) working for Ray Evernham, my goal was to be a crew chief,” Knaus said in a statement from the team. “Starting at a young age, I wanted to win every race we entered and battle for every championship.

“Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me the chance to do exactly that, and I could not be more thankful to him. After all these years, my competitive desire has not changed at all, but now I have a family that deserves my attention. This new executive role will allow me to compete in a different way with all four of our teams while spending more time with my wife and two young children.

“I appreciate the company supporting my decision, and I’m truly excited about the challenge ahead of me to help us grow and win. I’m also looking forward to working closely with Jeff (Andrews), who I admire and have great respect for. I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Knaus and his wife Brooke welcomed a baby girl July 30. Vivienne Mae Knaus is the couple’s second child. Son Kipling was born in 2018.

A new crew chief for Byron will be announced at a later date.

Chad Knaus, car owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson displaying their rings after Johnson claimed the 2013 Daytona 500. (Photo by John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In life, it’s rare to witness true excellence first-hand, but that’s precisely what we’ve been treated to with Chad,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is bittersweet because, in my opinion, he is the finest crew chief our sport has ever seen.

“Although we’re going to miss him atop the pit box, I’m heartened that Chad has made this decision for himself and his growing family and that he is energized about the opportunity to move us forward in a new capacity. There is no one with higher standards or a stronger passion for winning. He will continue to elevate Hendrick Motorsports and instill his championship mentality throughout the company.”

Knaus served two races as crew chief for Casey Atwood in 2000 and then did one race for Stacy Compton that season. In 2001, Knaus was paired with Compton. Knaus rejoined Hendrick Motorsports to be Johnson’s crew chief in 2002. They remained together until 2019 when Knaus moved to Byron’s team.   

Knaus will report to Andrews, 55, who has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager, effective immediately.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus celebrate their seventh NASCAR Cup championship after winning the 2016 season finale in Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Andrews joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and most recently served as vice president of competition. He had held that role since 2017.

Previously, Andrews held a leadership position in the team’s engine department, including director of engine operations. In his expanded role, Andrews will oversee all competition-related departments, including powertrain, manufacturing and racing operations. He will continue to support the organization’s technical relationship with Chevrolet and remain its primary liaison with NASCAR’s competition group. Andrews reports to Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson.

“In my almost 29-year NASCAR career, I’ve been fortunate to work for just one organization,” Andrews said in a statement from the team. “Mr. Hendrick is a racer and a fierce competitor. His drive to win is contagious, and I’m grateful to have a team of like-minded people who share that passion. Racing is all I have ever done professionally. When I left my home and my family 33 years ago to pursue this dream, I never could have imagined the opportunities that have been provided by so many people, most importantly Mr. Hendrick.”

Said Hendrick in a statement: “As we look to the years ahead, Jeff and Chad are going to play significant roles in our success. They’re tremendous leaders who are respected within our organization and across the entire auto racing world. In addition, they each bring unique strengths and skillsets that will complement each other extremely well and benefit all of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re in the business of winning, and this combination is going to help us do just that.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)